Music Is In Our Genes

I finally saw Werner Herzog’s movie, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams. It’s a beautiful, haunting film, even in the non-3-D version I watched on my home television.

Herzog received exclusive access to film inside southern France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caves, which contain the world’s oldest known cave art. These paintings are 30,000 years old, and are twice as old as the more well-known cave art at Lascaux.

Thirty-thousand years ago human beings were creating images of the animals around them, images that so captured the spirit and essence of the animals that they seem to leap off of the cave walls. Perhaps that was their purpose – to call the animals to the hunters, or to revere the spirits of the animals whose life they had taken. Either way, we’ve been painting for at least 30,000 years.

As part of the film’s exploration of the role of art in the evolution of modern humans, Herzog also shares the 2008 discovery of a nearly complete bone flute and several pieces of ivory flutes in the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany. The flutes are 35,000 to 40,000 years old. Dated to the time when modern humans were arriving and spreading throughout Europe, these are the oldest musical instruments ever found.

Towards the end of this movie trailer you can see a shot of a replica of one of these early flutes being played.

The flute is tuned in a pentatonic scale. It is hard for me to comprehend that the pentatonic scale has been in the mind of human beings for nearly 40, 000 years. We’ve been making music for a very long time.

I am awed by this notion, awed that we have been creating art and music since pre-history, awed that the symbolic language of art and music has been so long a part of who we are. Art and music are major chapters in the story of how we became modern humans. It seems that we are hard-wired to create. Perhaps art and music both are encoded into our DNA as part of what defines us as Homo sapiens.

Given our evolutionary history, our long relationship with music, how can any one of us keep from singing, or playing our instruments? How can any one of us believe that we’re “not musical?” Listen to the track I’m Not Musical from The Listening Book Audio by W.A. Mathieu, in case you need further convincing. Then, sing . . . dance . . . chant . . . play . . . fly . . . and claim your music!

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